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  • Writer's pictureDenise Breen

Past Lives is a deeply emotional film made with restraint that is both uplifting and heartbreaking

4 out of 5

It’s a shame that it took me so long to get around to seeing Past Lives. It has been in cinemas for some time and I am only now getting to see it as it is streaming on Netflix. The wait was worth it and it is a worthy addition to the list of nominated films for Best Film in the 2024 Oscars.

We are so determined to attribute the course of our lives to some kind of unseen author because there’s plenty of wonder and fascination to be gleaned from examining how we shape our own stories. Writer and director Celine Song’s extraordinarily assured debut film Past Lives finally gives us a sober exploration of this subject which is never cold nor clinical but also avoids the evocation of supernatural forces or fatuous fairy dust fantasies. Director Song recognises the beauty, sadness and wonder of the enormity of a lifetime’s events and she manages to put across that feeling without having to introduce artificial flourishes.

The two central characters, Nora and Hae Sung, are childhood friends whose potential for romance is cut short after one date when Nora’s family emigrates to Toronto. The film subsequently goes through two separate twelve years jumps, to points in time in which Nora and Hae Sung’s paths cross again. After the second of these jumps, there is a third person in the equation: Nora’s husband Arthur. When the three of them come together as Hae Sung visits Nora in her new home city of New York, they discuss what they mean to each other and what they could have meant to each other if they had made different choices.

The cleverness of Song’s screenplay is in how it never once puts too much significance on what could have been but also never diminishes the influence these fleeting connections can have on our subsequent lives. There are no monumental moments in Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship. Perhaps the pivotal scene in terms of their ongoing relationship is when they decide that they should stop talking over Skype for a little while, given the impossibility of them visiting each other in person. That little while turns into another twelve years, and while it is acknowledged that the two of them occasionally think about each other in the interim, this isn’t a passionate longing that consumes them as they yearn for the emotional and physical gap between them to be closed. No, it’s something much more interesting than that. Nora and Hae Sung continue with their lives, it’s just that their lives are slightly different than they would have been without each other. Song’s exquisite screenplay and perfectly pitched direction acknowledge these facts equally effectively in both dialogue and silences, and the implication is that there are more connections that wrought their separate existences that we are not shown, simply because Song has chosen their particular story to home in on.

Although it remains refreshingly grounded in its approach to its subject, Past Lives does not shy away from the beauty of the world around us, which so many films that superficially tackle similar themes seem to be convinced needs enhancement from gaudy accoutrements. Director Song and her cinematographer Shabier Kirchner shoot their various locations with a crisp realism but an eye for the inspirational potential of the everyday. Occasionally there is something more unusual in the background like a merry-go-round but there’s no attempt to artificially increase its beauty. It is enough that it is there. This is in keeping with film’s thesis and the perfectly complimentary visuals and screenplay have an intoxicating restraint that together create their own kind of magic. It’s a fantastic debut that takes an original and affecting route to emotional engagement with its audience. For those for whom it succeeds, it does so handsomely.

Past Lives is currently streaming on Netflix but still to be found in some independent and art house cinemas. Enjoy.

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